Kumar Rocker Again Delivers Clutch Postseason Start For Vanderbilt
OMAHA — Freshman righthander Kumar Rocker has twice taken the mound this postseason with Vanderbilt’s season on the line. Both times he has looked like anything but a freshman and has risen to the moment with an excellent start.
It happened in super regionals against Duke, when Vanderbilt needed a win to even the best-of-three series. Rocker struck out 19 batters in a no-hitter, a historic performance that captured the attention of the nation.
On Tuesday, the stage of the College World Series finals against Michigan was a little bigger, but Rocker again took the mound with Vanderbilt needing a win to even the best-of-three series. He stifled the Wolverines, striking out 11 batters and holding them to one run on three hits and two walks in 6.1 innings.
Sophomore closer Tyler Brown threw 2.2 scoreless innings to finish off a 4-1 Vanderbilt win and force a winner-take-all Game 3 on Wednesday.
It was a vintage Vanderbilt pitching performance. For all the elite pitchers that have come through Nashville under Tim Corbin—David Price, Mike Minor, Sonny Gray, Carson Fulmer, Kyle Wright—none of them have done what Rocker has done as a freshman.
Corbin is still getting to know Rocker, but he had no doubt that he would go out and compete Tuesday the way he did.
“We had the right guy on the mound,” Corbin said. “I haven’t been around him that long, but I know the fibers of the kid.”
The fibers are next level for Rocker. Listed at 6-foot-4, 255 pounds and wearing No. 80, he looks like a tight end. Coming off the bus, he looks like a big leaguer, if you’re willing to look past his baby-ish face.
On the mound, Rocker has premium stuff. He was consistently throwing his fastball 95 mph and mixing in a powerful breaking ball that flummoxed hitters. With the win, he improved to 12-5, 3.25 with 114 strikeouts and 21 walks in 99.8 innings this season. In the NCAA Tournament alone, he is 4-0, 0.96 with 44 strikeouts and five walks in 28 innings.
Michigan right fielder Jordan Brewer, the Big Ten player of the year, struck out and flew out in his first two at-bats against Rocker before he dumped a single into left field in his third shot against the freshman.
Brewer said Rocker’s ability to hide his breaking ball and play it off his fastball, which he locates well, makes him so tough.
“Once you sit on a curveball, he’s coming with a 95 mph fastball, either inside or outside,” Brewer said. “It’s hard to see, and it comes out of his hand really well.”
Rocker last year was highly rated coming out of high school. He ranked No. 13 on the 2018 BA 500 and was the highest-ranked prep player in the history of the BA 500 to make it to a four-year school. He said his decision last June in the draft was a difficult one, but he had a strong Vanderbilt commitment that pushed him to the 38th round of the draft, when the Rockies took a flier.
Rocker has undeniably benefited from the last 10 months that he’s spent at Vanderbilt working with pitching coach Scott Brown. He’s developed better routines and worked on his changeup—though he has yet to really unleash the pitch in games because he simply hasn’t needed it.
Over the course of the spring, Rocker has made tremendous strides. He made his collegiate debut Feb. 17 against Texas Christian in the MLB4 Tournament at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Pitching at the spring training home of the Rockies, a field he could have grown intimately familiar with if the draft had gone a little differently, Rocker lasted just 1.1 innings, struck out just one batter gave up five runs on five hits and two walks.
The raw tools were apparent that day in Arizona, but Rocker hadn’t figured out how to use them all yet. On Tuesday in Omaha, he had put the whole package together.
“I think it made me a better person in general,” he said. “I remember when I couldn’t get out of that second inning against TCU. I remember Tennessee. I remember those days like they were yesterday, and to finish here with this team is awesome.”
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Watching Rocker down the stretch leads to the question of what he’s doing in college at all. He was long one of the most famous players in the 2018 prep class and pitched for USA Baseball’s 18U national team in 2017. The draft class had so much prep pitching talent that there was never going to be enough money for big league teams to sign them all.
But Rocker? The athletic behemoth with pro sports bloodlines (his father, Tracy, played in the NFL) and maybe the best stuff in the class?
There were concerns about his fastball getting hit more than it should, something that he went through early this year at Vanderbilt. His size makes him an outlier and is something he’ll have to manage going forward. And there was his firm Vanderbilt commitment that would have made signing him an expensive proposition. The track record for prep pitchers drafted in the first round isn’t good, either.
So, in the end, Rocker went to college. It’s a decision that so far has worked out well for Rocker, Vanderbilt and the college game overall.
Michigan coach Erik Bakich, after watching Rocker overpower his hitters, said he was glad Rocker had chosen college over pro ball.
“I’m glad the college game has players like that in it,” Bakich said. “The college game is better when guys like that come to school.”
College baseball will benefit from Rocker, who is still just 19, for two more years. While the rest of the SEC won’t be thrilled to see him on Friday nights over the next two seasons, he has a chance to be a transcendent star for the sport.
That’s not what Rocker came to school for, however. He said he picked Vanderbilt because of its uniforms, its education, its coaching staff and the chance to win a national title, not necessarily in that order.
On Tuesday, Rocker pitched the Commodores to the precipice of a national championship. His story at Vanderbilt is still just beginning, but this is what he came to Nashville to do—to win in Omaha.